Bernard Plossu (born 1945) is not a well-known name in international photography, unless you happen to be French. Or at least, he was not to me. He is an avid traveler and his photography reflects everything from the journey itself, to what he sees when he gets there. I cannot say that I have known his name for long, only that I found him, a couple of years ago, when I was preparing for a great trip to Morocco with a Moroccan born Canadian friend, who took us on a fantastic trip from Essaouira to Fez, via Marrakesh and the southern interior, across the Atlas Mountains, not once, but twice!
Like I always do, when I travel, I take a look at photographers who have shot in the area that I am going to. I had a fair bit of notice, and therefore could look around Paris Photo, which I attend every year. One of the booths had a great photo of a few djellabahs laid over a stone-wall. A beautifully composed black and white photograph, in a size that I can hold and admire – the print was approximately 20 x 30 cm – and was hanging just below eye level. My eyes wondered to the label, which advised that the photographer was Bernard Plossu and that the photograph was taken in Morocco.
During our trip to Morocco, I made a lot of photographs, some with which I am almost entirely satisfied and a few I wish I could do over. It is difficult to make photographs in a place where the population is notoriously unhappy about you pointing a camera at them, so a lot of images, out of necessity, are ill prepared and very spontaneous.
When a people dresses in a characteristic way, it is often easy to go a little ethnographic, which is of course totally acceptable, but there are countless photographs in circulation of ‘types’. Postcards were sold by the millions in the first half of the 20th century, depicting your standard ‘type’ in a hood, face in the shadow, walking along the narrow streets of Fez with his donkey, or the more underground postcards of disrobed girls, often young, who for small change became eternalized in the cannon of poor taste and colonial dominance.
As you walk through the streets of almost every town and city in Morocco, you notice that not much has really changed in 100s of years. Delivery vehicles are often replaced with carts and donkeys, for the simple reason that the streets are very narrow and dark to keep the punishing sun at bay, and the temperatures just a few degrees cooler. In Morocco, it is possible to make photographs, which are entirely timeless. But at the same time you are at great risk of the cliché. So what do you do? Well you might think like Plossu, who seems to have been looking for the things that may be timeless, but would not have been photographed by the conventional travel photographer. Working in black and white, as do I, Plossu has taken great advantage of the bright light and deep shadows that are so intense in sun-baked Morocco. And of course, you then add the shapes that are so foreign to the west, of men and women wearing a cloak with a pointy hood and pointy slippers, which on their own make great shadows and in combination can take on a modernist feel when the composition allows.
One of the great things about Plossu is his eye. He has been very consistent throughout his career. He likes things a little quirky and things that are a little off. He has spent many years building his personal collection of photographs 1200 or 1300 of which have recently been given to the MEP, the French museum for photography, which is one of the great stops in Paris, should one be through here in the future.
The interesting thing about the collection that Plossu has donated is the absolute breadth of photographers and subject matter, from landscapes, to portraits, to close-ups and pure photojournalism. They are mostly small in size, forcing the viewer in tight to have a good look. But most importantly, the 1200+ photographs are by more than 600 different photographers, and all are the result of Plossu being given the work, or him having traded his own work for it. It is a remarkable achievement, to build a large collection of great photography, without spending a cent.
For me, the viewer of the 160, or so photographs from the Plossu gift, that are currently on display in the upper gallery of the MEP, the excitement is around discovering photographers that I have never heard of, and am seeing for the first time.
Each year, we go to galleries far and wide to discover new photographers. Some years, we go for many months without discovering someone new, who fits our particular esthetic. The Plossu show was the first time in a very long time that I saw dozens of names in the credits that I had never heard of. A cornucopia of talent and a joy to behold.
I made a lot of notes and enjoyed several evenings of pleasure scouring the internet looking up photographers to find more of their work.
Sadly, the Plossu gift has no catalogue, or even a list of photographs on display, at least not that I could find, but it does remain in the MEP collection after the exhibition comes down, in a few days. I went twice, and could go again, there was that much to discover. Thank you M. Plossu, you have opened my eyes yet again and I like what I see!
See more on my website: harbel.com